College Curricula

Posted on 22nd March 2021

Location? Reputation? Campus? When students begin to make their college lists, these factors usually guide their choices. But one factor that's often overlooked, but extremely important, is the college’s curriculum. After all, academics are the heart and purpose of the university experience, no matter where you are in the world, but especially at US colleges.

At US colleges, you don't have to specialise straight away. So, in your first year you will be taking courses from a range of subject areas. Even after you choose your major (your main course of study) in your second year, you will still typically be taking some required courses outside that area.

How broad that range of subject areas will be, and how many required courses there are, can vary widely from college to college. Did you know that the University of Texas at Austin requires all students to take a course in the history of the state of Texas; that Columbia, Caltech, and MIT have physical education requirements; or that Georgetown has a Theology and Religious Studies requirement?

The heaviest loads of required courses will come from those colleges that have a core curriculum.  A core curriculum will have several required courses, and not much choice (if any) in how to fulfil these requirements.

More flexible are distribution requirements, sometimes called general education requirements. These will give students areas (such as cultures, humanities, or writing) within which they can choose courses. For example, a college with a science requirement might allow students to choose between biology, chemistry, astronomy, and ecology courses to fulfil this requirement. However, a college with a core curriculum might specify that all students must take biology, chemistry, and physics. Some colleges with distribution requirements have several areas from which students must take courses, whilst others have only a few.

Other colleges will have open curricula, which means they don't have any required courses, or only one or two that give students lots of choice and flexibility. For example, at Grinnell, the only requirement is that all first year students take a first year tutorial, choosing from 35 possible topics (one of which in recent years was Kendrick Lamar)!

We often see students initially fill their college lists with high-ranking options like Brown, Columbia, and Duke. On first glance this makes sense--they're all excellent US colleges, and it’s great to aim high--but a closer look shows that the academic experiences on offer at these three colleges couldn't be more different.

Brown has an open curriculum, meaning there are no required courses. Students must take a certain number of courses of their choice, and also choose a major—and that's it! But Columbia's Core Curriculum is central to its values. It requires students to study Contemporary Civilization, Music Humanities, and Frontiers of Science, among other humanities fields, and has a heavy emphasis on reading. And at Duke, there are distribution requirements in Areas of Knowledge, Modes of Inquiry, First-year Writing, and a First-year seminar on a range of topics. This suggests that Duke is looking for students with intellectual curiosity, and gives them freedom (but within a framework) to choose the ways which they will explore academically.

So, you can see that a student with a lot of initiative and specific yet varied interests might suit Brown. A more unsure student who wants a rigorous menu of different subjects provided for them so they can find their interests might suit Columbia.  A student who is curious, a strong communicator, and wants the freedom to choose and explore simultaneously might be a good fit at Duke. All three of these students might have excellent grades, but when we look at the nuances, we see they are very different applicants. As such, seeing a student with all three of these colleges on their list would raise our eyebrows.

There are some students who ask, what if they could thrive in any of those academic situations, or that they really don't mind what the curriculum is like--they just want to go to a good university? Our answer would be that it's still important to consider these things because, first, the college minds! There are so many US colleges all with such specific and distinct identities that they are all looking for very specific types of learners, and to have a good chance of admission, you need to show that you are the type of student that would fit in there, and this includes the curriculum: the centre of the college experience.

Second, it's OK if you haven't started to think about how you might learn best- up to this point, that decision has largely been made for you. But now, you have the freedom to choose exactly how you want to learn, from a wide menu of options, which is very exciting! By starting to think about how you learn best, you can set yourself up for success before you even arrive on campus.

If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit complex, that’s understandable! We’re here to help: we frequently run events with US universities to give you insight into the academic experience on offer at particular colleges, and our college counselling service is designed to help you through the intricacies of the system. Book a free call with a director now by clicking here!

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